A Golden Age of Podcasts

February 3, 2016 § 2 Comments

I like to say that I was listening to podcasts before they were hip (check out this post from waaay back in 2009). Maybe I don’t really think that’s true, but I have been listening to them for a long time. Word on the street is that we’re currently in a golden age of podcasts, and there’s definitely a lot to choose from.  Quality and content range from three guys celebrating their love of pencils to a multi-part GE sponsored radio play/commercial publicizing new ultrasound technology. You know podcasts have gone mainstream when even Lena Dunham has gotten into the game.

There are currently 27 different podcasts on my phone (I have a Galaxy and use the Podcast Addict app).  Some you might have heard of – five are produced by Slate, three by the BBC, and at least five are radio shows you can listen to on National Public Radio. Welcome to Nightvale and “You Must Remember This” are two projects that were conceived as podcasts and are performed as theater.  Both have received huge amounts of well-earned media attention.

What is the attraction? When you think about it podcasts appear like a step back into another golden age… of radio.  Which is a large part of their charm. The majority of the ones I listen to, while better produced than their predecessors, stay true to what’s proven to be a successful formula.  They are still, for the most part, just recorded conversations.  Usually between two and three hosts.  The limitation of the medium is precisely what makes it intimate and warm.

Here’s an updated list of a few of my favorites, all with a literary spin of course:

Book Fight!  Tom & Mike are university professors by day, underground podcasters by night (literally, they record in a basement). Book Fight! is the only podcast that regularly has me laughing out loud… I’ve completely given up listening to it at work. Whether they are discussing a book, critiquing NaNoWriMo forums, exploring the deepest darkest corners of fan fiction or breaking raccoon news – listening to these guys is like grabbing a beer with a couple of good friends.

The Longform Podcast is a series of interviews with journalists. They have recorded 177 episodes to date. Past guests include Ira Glass, Gay Talese, Alex Blumberg, Hanna Rosin, Tavi Gevinson and Malcolm Gladwell.  They’ve interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates three times.  If you have even the smallest interest in writing you should be listening to this podcast.  Not only is it interesting and entertaining, it’s a capsule education in journalism.

There’s not much to say about The Erasable Podcast other than it’s a podcast devoted to pencils. The three hosts are pencil aficionados who review different brands, critique the quality of graphite, lament off-center cores, rate the best sharpeners and erasers – to be honest, it’s a bit nuts. They’ve spent multiple episodes discussing Field Notes notebooks at great length. To date they’ve recorded 43 episodes. 43 episodes devoted entirely to the subject of pencils. I try to explain it to friends, but they stare back at me blankly.  Then they take the perfectly sharpened pencil I offer them (I now own several different varieties, as well as a schoolhouse-style hand crank sharpener and a Field Notes subscription) and wander off.

Here’s The Thing is a national public radio show hosted by Alex Baldwin. Regardless of how you feel about Baldwin as an actor or human being, he is one hell of an interviewer. He has a gift for engaging his guests in conversation, and within minutes they are laughing and joking like old friends at a cocktail party.  And it doesn’t hurt that the man has the most beautiful voice on radio. Warning: Baldwin mostly has Hollywood and TV celebrities, with the occasional NYC personality, on his show. So if you aren’t one for celebrity interviews (I’m not either) you might think Here’s The Thing isn’t for you. But you’d be wrong.

The LARB Radio Hour, hosted by Tom Lutz, Laurie Wiener & Seth Greenland reminds me of an old-style late night television show – all about books.  I think it’s the opening music.  The hosts are knowledgable, irreverent, and just generally lots of fun. Michael Silverblatt, host KCRW’s Bookworm, was a guest for two episodes.  It remains one of my favorite interviews of all time.  Silverblatt revealed that a listener called him to task for the lack of diversity amongst his guests. Not only did he acknowledge it – he promised the reader that he’d make a change. And if you listen to the show now, you realize that is exactly what he did. Lutz, Wiener & Greenland are publishing industry insiders (Lutz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books) talking to their peers and colleagues. Their guests trust them – you can hear it in their interactions. It makes for fantastic radio.

Memory At Bay by Evelyne Trouillot, tr. Paul Curtis Daw

February 2, 2016 § 3 Comments

Title:  Memory At Bay
Author:  Evelyne Trouillot
Translator:  Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 8139 3809 7

Trouillot_Memory_Select.inddExtensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history.  The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path.  And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation.  By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.

Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people:  “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”

Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home.  She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty.  The daughter of a Haitian intellectual &  lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops.  Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.  

Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes.  Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women.  Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique.  She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.

While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.

As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for.  Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.

These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about  a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history.  Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother.  Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.

Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed.  Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling.  Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to  justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted.  Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.

On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a  child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.

As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti?  Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality.  Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece:  a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.

 

Starting 2016 A Little Late This Year

February 1, 2016 § 5 Comments

Happy 2016!  I’ve never been a consistent reviewer and, true to form, it’s been some time since I last posted. But while I’ve been taking the last couple months off I haven’t been entirely relaxing. Completely the opposite, in fact.  I’ve been working on submissions outside of this blog – something I want to do more of in the future and which will (by necessity) change the content of the posts you’ll find here.

Are you surprised?  Does any of this sound familiar?  I’ve noticed a lot of posts lately, by some of my favorite bloggers, saying much the same thing.  Bloggers burned out by the daily grind of keeping up a blog, finding it difficult to balance their online & offline lives or just wanting to focus more on submitting their work to places that might pay. Many of these blogs, like mine, came online around 2009 – which leads me to wonder why we all seem to be feeling the same way at the same time. A case of the seven  year itch perhaps?

Displaying 20160119_064006.jpg

Emma, who has eaten so many of the books reviewed on this blog that there was really no choice but to make her a mascot.

Submitting reviews while still creating content here is obviously going to create some challenges.  My posts are still going to be about books and translations – this will remain a literary blog – so the reviews aren’t going away.  Mostly because I’ve never been much of a personal essayist. I’m not a particularly private person, it isn’t that, but my private life isn’t particularly interesting. And I really love writing reviews.  Yet there’s no denying that this blog has grown stale – probably for you as much as for me. That’s something I hope to change going forward.

If all goes as planned 2016 is going to be a busy year. And for my first official post of the New Year let’s start with Reading & Writing Goals of 2016.

I always sign up for the GoodReads Reading Challenge. Even though after 3 years of trying I still haven’t hit my goal. This year I’m going for 60 books and I’m already 3 books behind! But part of my reading goals for 2o16 is to actually spend more time reading. Doesn’t everyone feel like they have less and less time these days?  To combat the hyper-acceleration of modern life (yep, I went there!) I’m working on a major restructuring of how I live. More about that later this week.  (Here’s a hint: a certain Japanese book is part of my plan).  Back to Goodreads –  who else is taking part  in the challenge and how many books have you set as your goal? Let me know in the comments.

What’s on the reading list?  Translations, of course.  But also some non-fiction. Last year there was no plan – no rhyme or reason as to what I was reading. And I prefer to have a plan.  I was discussing the blog with a friend and she brought up a series on gardening books I did the first year of the blog.  Those are some of my favorite posts because I was able to explore a single subject in-depth.  In hindsight two factors made that series possible.  First, I wasn’t getting as many review copies back then.  More often than not the mail tends to dictate what I read now.  This isn’t a bad thing – I’m definitely NOT complaining. I’ve been introduced to authors and publishers and books from all over the world – and am hugely grateful for the education and the opportunities that have resulted.  But last year I was reading by the seat of my pants.  Which leads to the second factor – planning. Series like the one on gardening take some advance planning.  There needs to be more of that here in 2016.  The goal is that every month is going to have a unifying theme and/or focus.  Not necessarily reading books from a single country or a region for a month.  I’m thinking of more abstract ideas –  sometimes it will be a personal writing challenge I set myself, or a type of book, a specific subject or idea. I’ve got a few things planned but am always open to suggestions.

Lastly, expect more experimentation. The majority of posts on this blog have been straightforward reviews of translations.  And you’ll still find those here.  But there will also be more nonfiction, more interviews, more opinions and news pieces (I’ve become a bit obsessed with traditional journalism over the last few months)…  and maybe my version of creative writing.  We’ll see.  The real goal this year is to mix things up a little.

A Case for Diaspora Writing as a Literary Movement

December 4, 2015 § 8 Comments

I’m in the midst of writing a review of Memory At Bay, a novel by Evelyne Trouillot translated by Paul Curtis Daw.  As I was writing an idea became stuck in my head – relevant to the book and the review, but too large and unformed at this stage to actually use.  The only way I can think of to move past it and get back to work is to do a massive data-dump…  plus I’d love to put it out there to hear what everyone else thinks of it.

My question is:  can diaspora writing be considered a literary movement of the late 20th- early 21st- centuries? And if so, what would be its defining characteristics?  Here’s what I’ve found so far.

A Google search brought up both the terms “diasporic literature” (which is a horrible name) and “exile literature”, but I think diaspora and exile are two different things.  Modern diaspora is a kind of expatriation associated almost exclusively with people of the developing world who leave their home countries for socio-economic and political reasons: war, famine, poverty and corrupt governments. But they aren’t necessarily refugees or exiles.  The implication is that refugees are fleeing ahead of something.  That they are leaving against their will and that when the region they are leaving stabilizes they will try to return.  The word exile, on the other hand, implies a specific individual (or race or religious group) forced to leave because they are being targeted.  In contrast, members of a diaspora leave in search of better circumstances, better opportunities and (yes, this too) for safety. They plan and prepare.  It is a kind of immigration (though members of a diaspora do not always come through legal channels). Ultimately, they are looking for a new home where they and their loved ones can thrive.

Puerto Rico (though not a country), Haiti and other Caribbean Islands, African nations (particularly Eastern, Western and Central), India, Bangladesh… these are all countries I associate with diaspora.*  Countries, the majority relatively small, whose citizens have dispersed throughout the world in large numbers.  Diaspora writing is about the transition between one country and another, about resettling and rebuilding of lives, and is often multi-generational.  Another important characteristic of the literature is an attachment to memory and an underlying sense of guilt – for having left and for building a new life somewhere else.  Displacement.  Diversity. Navigation. Perhaps diaspora writing is about coming to terms with voluntary exile.

The writers who are a part of the diaspora tend to settle in the wealthier Western countries. English language countries like England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  They write in English or write in another language and are translated into English. Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Alain Mabanckou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Evelyne Trouillot, Jean-Euphèle Milcé and maybe Valeria Luiselli and Bolaño (Mexico and Latin America is somewhat tricky for a number of reasons) – they are some of the writers whose work I would put in the category of diaspora writing.

The immediate result of diaspora writing is that it brings a fresh perspective to English literature. It is a reexamination of Western culture, described by someone who is simultaneously embedded and detached, and gives voice to a huge segment of Western society that is too often marginalized and ignored.  At its best it explores the fusion of two cultures, allowing for endless variations.

One last piece of information I found interesting: the word “diaspora” entered into the English language as recently as the late 1800’s.  A graph generated by the Google Ngram Viewer (which tracks the usage of a word or phrase in books) shows a jump in its usage between the years 1980-2008 of approximately 250%.  I can’t embed the chart into this post, but you can follow the link to it below.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=diaspora&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&year_end=2015&corpus=15&smoothing=7&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cdiaspora%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3BDiaspora%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bdiaspora%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BDIASPORA%3B%2Cc0

That’s all I’ve got at the moment.  I hope I haven’t bored everyone to death.  My final question is – what do you think?  Is diaspora writing a real thing or have I over thought it? (I’m really not sure :-) ).  And are there other countries and authors you’d include in the category? I’d really love to hear what everyone thinks.

 

*For some reason I don’t entirely associate diaspora with most Asian and Latin American countries, though at the moment I can’t explain why.  

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, tr. Isabel Fargo Cole

November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Title: The Sleep of the Righteous

Author:   Wolfgang Hilbig

Translator:   Isabel Fargo Cole

Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang HilbigIn his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…”  Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing.  Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.

Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between  East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.

The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction.  These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator.  Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man.  Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”,  the adolescent boy runs away.  He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany.  This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life.  Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives.  “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”

“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”

Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –

“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.

I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud,  nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”

Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister.  In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather.  The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder.  In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable.  In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover.  The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.

Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades –  instilling the place with a lonely mysticism.  The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate.  These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon.  He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes.  The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.

The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…

What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual  paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.  

In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience.  The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi.  A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.

What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…

Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy.  Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race.  Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy.  All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live.  It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract.  As  Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists.  But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.

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